When states of the U.S. are compared on indicators of child wellbeing, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts usually does well. In the 2014 Kids Count Data Book from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, Massachusetts is number one in the overall ranking of the 50 states. But another recent report, entitled Fatherlessness in Massachusetts: The Economic and Social Costs to Our Commonwealth, finds sizable disparities in the state, not just in family wealth and incomes, but in child wellbeing. The report from the Massachusetts Family Institute links the problems of the many children who are not doing well to the growth of single-parent households and to sizable variations in the prevalence of family disruption and non-formation across areas of the state.

Between 1980 and 2013, the overall proportion of Massachusetts youngsters living in single-parent households ballooned from one in five to one in three. But family decline has been even more dramatic in many of the state’s cities. In seven of the ten largest cities of the Commonwealth, it is now a majority of children who live in single-parent households, as the below figure shows. This is not merely a matter of the racial and ethnic makeup of each city’s population. In New Bedford, whose child population is majority-white, 56 percent of all children live in single-parent families. In Springfield, where Hispanic children are in the majority, 64 percent of all children live in single-parent families. In Brockton, where black children are the largest racial/ethnic group, just over 50 percent of all children are growing up in single-parent families. And in Boston, where no racial/ethnic group predominates, 55 percent of all children live in single-parent families.

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Longitudinal and survey data cited in the report link a single-parent upbringing to childhood problems like academic underachievement, emotional and behavior disorders, exposure to violence in both the neighborhood and within the child’s own home, teen pregnancy, and later joblessness and criminal conduct. Although father absence and non-support are strongly associated with family poverty and welfare dependence, the connection between single parenthood and developmental problems persists even when income and poverty are controlled for, as the report notes. The association between family breakdown and social pathology is also visible in variations across cities in rates of childhood poverty, welfare dependence, high school completion, teen pregnancy, unmarried parenthood, and violent crime. Massachusetts cities with higher proportions of children growing up in single-parent homes have higher rates of all of these problems. (See the table below.)

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See below for data sources and descriptions of each indicator.

The Massachusetts report notes that the problems of single-parent families place a substantial financial burden on taxpayers at state and federal levels. “When single mothers are unable to earn enough for their families or absent fathers do not provide support for their children, the citizens of Massachusetts end up supporting them.” Fifty-two percent of Massachusetts children in female-headed households have parents who receive food stamps, cash welfare, or Supplemental Social Security income. In eight of the ten largest cities of the Commonwealth, more than 60 percent of children in fatherless families depend on such welfare payments. The prenatal and obstetric care for virtually all the births to unmarried women in the state are paid for out of public funds.

The report concludes by observing that:

Publicizing the disadvantages of single parenthood does not mean condemning or demonizing women or men who are already single parents. Rather, it means pointing out the risks and burdens involved in lone parenthood to young women and men who are not yet parents. It means making them aware that there are choices they can make—such as to complete their educations, find jobs, and get married before they start families—that will dramatically lower the odds that their children will grow up in poverty.

We believe these facts need to be disseminated widely, confidently, and repeatedly.

One issue the report does not address is how and whether public agencies could take steps to reduce the unintentional subsidization of high-risk family formation through government benefit programs. That question needs to be on the table in Massachusetts and every other state as well.

Nicholas Zill is a psychologist and survey researcher who has written on indicators of family and child wellbeing for four decades. Prior to his retirement, he was the head of the Child and Family Study Area at Westat, a social science research corporation in the Washington, D.C., area.

Notes on Figure and Table:

The figure and table make use of updated data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2009-2013 5-Year estimates and birth data from “Massachusetts Births 2011 and 2012,” from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. These data were not available prior to the publication of the report of the Massachusetts Family Institute. Five-year composite figures were used for the statistics on Massachusetts cities to provide reliable estimates for these jurisdictions.

  • The Percent of Massachusetts Children Living in Single-Parent Households, 2013, is from the American Community Survey 2009-2013 5-Year Composite Estimates, Table S0901 for the State of Massachusetts and the ten largest cities in the state. Data accessed via the American FactFinder website.
  • The 4-Year High School Graduation Rate reflects the number of students in the district who graduated from high school within four years of entry. The source of these data is the 2013 Graduation Report from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
  • The 2012 Teen Birth Rate is the number of infants born in that year to mothers residing in the jurisdiction who were under 20 years of age at the time of birth, per 1,000 young women of ages 15-19 in the city population. Data from Department of Public Health report cited above.
  • The 2012 Violent Crime Rate for each city is the number of violent crimes reported to the police per 1,000 residents of the city. Data are from the FBI Uniform Crime Report statistics for Massachusetts.
  • The 2013 Child Poverty Rate for each city is the proportion of all children under 18 in the city who lived in households whose annual incomes were below the federal poverty threshold. Data from the American Community Survey 2009-2013 Table S0901, accessed via the Census Bureau’s American FactFinder website.
  • The 2013 Welfare Receipt Rate for each city is the proportion of all children under 18 in the city who lived in households that received Food Stamps (SNAP), cash welfare, or SSI. Data from the American Community Survey 2009-2013 Table S0901, accessed via the Census Bureau’s American FactFinder website.
  • The 2012 Percent Unwed Births is the number of infants born in that year to mothers residing in the jurisdiction who were unmarried at the time of birth, divided by the total number of births to residents of the jurisdiction in that year. Data from Department of Public Health report cited above.
  • The Correlation with Single-Parent Percentage is the Pearson product-moment correlation between the percent of children in single-parent households in the city and the specified indicator value for the same city, across the ten largest cities of Massachusetts.